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’Pennies for Progress’ Funds Road Repairs

Mon July 11, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Peter Hildebrandt

When road work needs to get done, a penny sales tax in the area to be served by the road is one way to finance it. Though York County, S.C., residents just barely passed this tax method the first time around, by the time there was a call for it a second time, with the Mt. Gallant Road project, it passed by an overwhelming majority.

John Huskins is a construction engineer with the South Carolina Department of Transportation in York County, which is managing the construction project on the busy local Mt. Gallant Road. They are widening Mt. Gallant Road and installing storm and gutter drains the entire length of the stretch from the intersection of Anderson Road and U.S. 21 bypass to Route 161, Celanese Road.

Work started in June 2010. Completion is expected by November 2012. The total construction cost of the job is 3.9 million dollars. York County identified this as a good fit for its sales tax initiative.

“I think the amount of traffic volume on this road had a lot to do with the decision to proceed on the project,” said Huskins.

Phil Leazer, project manager of Pennies for Progress handled funding for this project.

“This Pennies for Progress was a catch-phrase we came up with back in 1997 when we started the very first capital sales and use tax that allows us to do this,” explained Leazer. “The first one started in the state of South Carolina was in York County. Our leaders really lobbied hard to get this new law into effect.”

This paved the way for other counties to take advantage of it. In 1997 it went to the voters and passed 51 percent to 49 percent. What was set out for that program was accomplished. Because of the way that the law reads, in seven years York County residents had to vote on whether or not they thought there were additional roads needing to be done. In 2003, a second referendum was approved by 73 percent of the county’s voters.

The penny sales tax is a tax on all goods and services at this point. Studies have shown, according to Leazer, that almost 40 percent of that tax is paid by people who do not live in York County, people who are just traveling through. The first program in 1997 generated 100 million dollars worth of revenue; 60 million came from the residents of the county, 40 million just came from people traveling through.

“It is a good program”, said Leazer. “Whatever’s generated by the sales tax stays here. For every dollar we generate through the tax, 99 cents stays here while the remaining one cent is used to compensate the South Carolina Department of Revenue for administrative costs associated with the collection of the tax.”

The Mt. Gallant Road project was the very first priority following that second vote.

“There were some folks in the area where this work is being done who wanted to know why we didn’t choose to do a five-lane road here, as this is a highly congested area,” said Leazer. “Well, doing that type of roadway would have taken out at least one row of existing houses in the area, if not both.”

The project has worked out to be one of the most complicated road development projects they’ve dealt with. It is littered with new and old utilities and has houses, businesses and a major water treatment plant directly in the proximity of the work area.

“Obviously getting all that stuff taken care of and getting through that has been hectic,” said Leazer. “But the guys at United Construction are doing a great job; we’re very happy with what they’ve done. We just have a lot of utilities to get around.”

United Construction, Charlotte, N.C., was the low bidder on the project. United owns all of its construction, excavation and paving equipment, according to Ken Davis, project manager. It only rents or leases specialty items, like the curb machine that is busy bringing the road’s new curb and gutter to life. This is about a 2 mi. (3.2 km) project, on both sides of the road. The curb and gutter amounts to a total of 17,580 ft. (5,358 m) on the job.

It also rented a huge rock hammer for dealing with a very large rock down one of the side roads.

“We ran into some granite on Breen Circle and had to get a great big Hitachi machine with a pole hammer to get that out,” explained Davis. “Blasting was obviously one of our choices, but being so close to so many houses meant that that also wasn’t an especially good option.”

United will be placing some medians down the center of the road, adding some turn lanes and widening out the road by about 5 ft. (1.5 m) from existing line of pavement, making the entire thoroughfare about 10 ft. (3 m) wider.

It has about 12 pieces of equipment to help it accomplish that. There are two Caterpillar 315s, and a Cat 312 backhoe and a Volvo 240 track hoe on site. Three skid steers are on site as well; two are Caterpillar and one is a New Holland. A Caterpillar IT-14 loader is on site, as is a Hitachi mini-hoe. Three RamX sheepsfoot rollers are used for fill on the site and a Power Curb machine is being used.

Davis echoed the observation often made in the construction world: building new is a lot simpler than remodeling.

“It’s a lot more difficult to do a road-widening project because with a new road, there’s nothing there and you simply build it,” said Davis. “We’re dealing with utilities which must be located and there are so many people we have to talk to and who we must coordinate with, including businesses. It doesn’t go fast, and that pushes up the price somewhat; if it was through two miles of woods we could clear it, grub it and build it in maybe a year and a half — and the price would probably be 25 percent less.”

On this job, United Construction is subcontracting out all the striping, final surface asphalt, large tree removal and it is going to sub out any work dealing with hazardous waste tanks which may be encountered. It must bring in about 7,840 cu. yds. (5,994 cu m) of imported material and it is moving about 3,783 cu. yds. (2,892 cu m), in total a handling of some 12,000 cu. yds. (9,174 cu m) of earth at this site.

“Those numbers can change,” added Davis. “We also have 17,000 square yards of fine grading which must be done on the job. And we will do the final landscaping on the site.”

Railroad ballast at the equipment storage area and project manager office keeps the truck and large equipment tires free of mud and dirt. This is basically an erosion control measure in this area so that sediment does not get back into area streams. Ballast is then taken to another job site or back to the storage yard. This is a recyclable material and helps the work to be as green as possible and cuts down on trips to the rock quarry. United uses it as many times as it can, according to Davis.

When the plans show utilities on the job, it will use shovels and do all the soft exploratory work manually.

“I call the utilities and they come out and paint on the ground,” added Davis. “We in turn dig down about three feet with our equipment. But then we use probes and dig down the rest of the way to uncover the utilities.

“We follow the same procedure for each job. It’s always easier and cheaper to pay a guy 13 or 14 dollars an hour to dig through to locate a fiber optics line than to be charged hundreds of thousands of dollars for repair if one is accidentally sliced. If something feels strange with a probe they’ll stop and we’ll evaluate it. There’s nothing like the human element in making sure you’re catching something before it’s too late.”

The project is using 1.3 million dollars worth of asphalt. Well over one third of the project involves the asphalt, which is purchased from the Granite Company which is close to this job site, in the Rock Hill area.

Davis explained that nothing out of the ordinary has been found in the course of the excavation work that’s been involved as well as the construction.

“At times during the course of such work at rural sites there is often much more of a chance of discovering old gravesites, whereas in heavily populated areas, much work has already been done over the years.

“Fifteen workers are on site, on average. We talk to the residents on a daily basis and try to work out any problems,” added Davis. “We do things for them. If they need help getting their cars into or out of their driveways or carrying groceries from one side of the street to the other if their driveway is blocked, we accommodate them any way that we can. We don’t leave everything up to them.”

In the end, everything comes back to the humble and relatively worthless penny. But add that penny to millions of sales over the years and they start to add up, and can mean additional jobs and better and safer roads for a neighborhood.

“This is a really neat concept,” added Leazer. “When a penny sales tax is specifically for road improvements, why not ask the people who are using your roads, whether they’re residents or non residents, to generate some funding to help with that? This is an excellent way to capture some revenue from people traveling through and using our roads and not really having to pay anything aside from this little tax, while at the same time getting a difficult road project completed and paid for.” CEG

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